Parallel to several reports that adults are facing stress and anxiety-related issues in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic globally, the same has had a direct impact on the mental health of children as well, experts dealing with child psychiatry and pediatrics point out.
The Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) has been providing out-patient care to an average of 35 to 40 children per day while around 30 other children seek teleconsultation for mental health assistance.
Dr K John Vijay Sagar, Professor and Head of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NIMHANS told Indianexpress.com that an increase in relapse of mental health problems in children who had a past history was observed during the last few months.
“This can be explained due to the precipitating effect of stress related to COVID-19. Parents who are frontline workers (like doctors, nurses, police personnel, sanitation workers) have been under tremendous stress since the pandemic began leaving them with longer working hours with very limited quality time for family. Many of them have also contracted the infection in due course leading to a sudden disruption in their family routine affecting children,” Dr Sagar said.
He added that the children of frontline workers are at an increased risk for mental health problems. “This area needs a systematic study to explore the prevalence and nature of mental health problems with the need to plan urgent interventions. With several frontline workers succumbing to the infection, the sudden loss experienced by their children is also another factor.”
Meanwhile, Dr Jagdish Chinnappa, Paediatrics Consultant at Manipal Hospitals said that the same has made children feel lonely and irritable, having a hampering impact on their appetite as well. “As they miss the attention from parents and grandparents, limited human interaction, preoccupation with digital media, change in the way they interact with teachers and parental preoccupation with their careers are leading to depression among children these days,” he said.
He added, “They (children) are even apprehensive about doctors consulting wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) kits as few kids have stated them to be like aliens.”
At the same time, Dr Puja Kapoor, Pediatric Neurologist and Co-Founder of Continua Kids pointed out that the governments need to focus on the holistic health of children rather than providing only basic care. “It is highly recommended that the parents of children staying at home should reduce their use of internet and TV by engaging them in physical activities. Children who are separated from their parents should be given special care. Their nutritional needs should be taken care of. Their communication with parents should be increased via phone and their access to mental health services should be improved,” she said.
Elaborating on the ill-effects of the excessive use of gadgets observed in children these days, Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, a clinical psychology professor said that parents need to see the work from home culture as an opportunity to interact with their children in regular intervals as well. “The child tends to feel left out — when his/her parents are always distracted with their own activities — in instances when they seek assistance and attention from parents. This leads to them being frustrated and further leading to trust-related issues (especially teenagers) as they grow up,” he said.
Dr Sharma, who also operates the Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic at NIMHANS noted that peer pressure on children to spend more time gaming and on social media has also been on the rise in the lockdown period. “There has been a proportionate increase in the use of gadgets, even after hours of online classes, leading to more addiction cases,” he explained.
Meanwhile, Dr Chinnappa urges parents to keep a balance in their child’s screentime. “Social media and gadgets are double-edged swords. While they are necessary for multiple activities, keeping a balance is crucial,” he said.
Among recommendations made to ensure good mental health among children in these times of minimal social life, he added that their social interaction within the family should be maximised. “Allow children to be creative. Make them involved in hobbies and activities like dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, board games, and scrabble. Ask them to speak out their thoughts and to write out their concerns,” he said.
Instagram influencer and blogger Shweta Tanwar Mukherjee asserted that kids would generally “bounce back” later if they received emotional support from caring parents in their lives especially in tough times, like a pandemic situation. “This would teach them resiliency through skills and techniques that help them manage emotional stress, such as yoga, deep breathing and talking to someone. Not talking about the pandemic can actually make kids worry more. Acknowledge their concerns, validate their feelings and provide comfort and reassurance,” she said.
Further, experts at NIMHANS have suggested the following to parents/caretakers to keep their children mentally healthy:
– Spend quality time with children
– Explain COVID-19 in simple language
– Encourage children to openly communicate about their feelings
– Validate their feelings as normal, offer reassurance
– Ensure daily routine
– Limit screen time
– Ensure adequate stimulation of language,socio-emotional and motor
developmental domains in young children
– Encourage children to develop a new hobby
– Involve older children and adolescents in social activities through government welfare agencies and NGOs
– Seek professional help on time if there are any persistent negative feelings/behaviours
– Provide regular medication for those with ongoing psychiatric illness
– Reach out to mental health professionals in crisis situations like acute onset behavioural changes, self-harm, and others.